Virginia journalist reflects on his work during deadly Charlottesville protests
- Written by Elliott Robinson, VPM News
- Category: Local News
- Published: 11 August 2022
This Friday marks five years since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
For those watching from afar, several images emerged that now define the day.
One is a photo of protestors being hit by a car taken by journalist Ryan Kelly. [Editor's note: This link will take viewers to a photo depicting deadly violence. Please view with discretion.]
Kelly took that photo on his last day as a staffer at The Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville. He now lives in Richmond and works for a brewery in addition to continuing his work as a freelance photographer.
VPM News Director Elliott Robinson chatted with photojournalist Ryan Kelly about the impact of his award-winning and troubling photograph.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Elliott Robinson: You kind of got famous as much as a news photographer can get famous from a picture of someone being murdered. How do you feel about that?
Ryan Kelly: I want to say bittersweet, but even that doesn't capture it because the sweetness, there is no sweetness. Somebody died.
I watched a murder and a hate crime and I watched dozens of people get injured. And I watched what had just moments before been a happy, celebratory atmosphere. I don't know. The people understand the timeline.
Earlier in the day, fights were breaking out and people were going back and forth, swinging batons and shields at each other. That all got broken up. The sides had separated and they went their own separate ways. The rally was over. It never even happened. This was hours later on Fourth Street. These were counterprotesters who were essentially celebrating what they felt was like a victory of driving out Nazis, essentially.
And they were chanting and singing. And it was a celebratory atmosphere. And it went from that from hundreds of people happy and joyous, marching down a street to instantly a car screeching down, speeding into them, crashing into a crowd, bodies flying, reversing. So it went from happy, joyous, calm to terror in just an instant. So it’s bizarre and terrible.
And I'm proud of the Pulitzer Prize because as a journalist and even before I was a journalist, that was something that I looked up to you and I was aware of. But I'm aware that it came at that expense of a death and injuries and a community being torn apart and still being torn apart five years later.
So it's just a strange thing. I wish it didn't happen. Frankly, if I could change it and take it back, I wish obviously that never happened.
I would certainly trade off being known and, you know, being an awarded journalist and photographer for the violence not having happened. But it did happen and I was there. So for that fact, I'm glad that it was at least documented and brought more awareness to the awful, awful tragedy of what happened that day.
E.R: Does photography mean something different to you now?
R.K: It does. I think being a photojournalist at a daily newspaper, especially a small staff in a small market. We got so used to doing two, three, four assignments a day, rushing from one thing to the next. You're always filling up a paper. There's always a paper coming up the next day that you have to fill up. Website needs new stories. And a lot of the stuff we were doing was local arts performances, high school sports, you know, UVA profiles and athletics, things that weren't hard, breaking news, but things that people in the community wanted to see.
But you get so caught up in the here's what I'm doing today. People are going to read it tonight and tomorrow onto the next thing. What's next? What's next? What's next?
After that weekend of August 12th, I have a much better appreciation for the long-term lasting impact of what we as photographers do. And that's you document something that's in front of you, you tell the truth and you show what's happening.
But that impacts people not just that day, but forever. I mean, there are people in that photograph who I documented the worst day of their life and the entire world has seen it and will reference that picture forever.
And there's more to all of these people's lives. There's more to my life than just what happened in that one split second on Fourth Street in Charlottesville on August 12th.
But the power of photography is such that that split second is what's memorialized forever.